Johan Ernst Gunnerus 1718-1773

Trondheim was a growing town with about 7000 inhabitants when Johan Ernst Gunnerus arrived as the newly appointed bishop in 1758. It was primarily the strong trading patriciate and their continental connections that gave the town financial growth and a new spirit of the times, namely the Age of the Enlightenment and a national awakening. This in turn led to a scientific movement which had its national centre in Trondheim during the final half of the eighteenth century.

The most important person in this movement was Bishop Gunnerus. Born in Kristiania [now Oslo] in 1718, he adopted his father's interests in science and philosophy, and was said to be a particularly gifted pupil. His studies continued at the University of Copenhagen, then at the universities in Halle and Jena. His scientific reputation spread, and he was recalled for an extraordinary professorship in theology at the University of Copenhagen in 1754. The next year he was ordained as a vicar, and shortly after this he was to his surprise appointed bishop of Trondheim.

Well settled in Trondheim, he quickly came into contact with the town’s scientific community, and in particular with the duo Gerhard Schøning and Peter Frederik Suhm. The cooperation between these men was warm and enthusiastic, and resulted in the establishment of Det trondhjemske selskab in 1760, the first learned association in Norway. Its purpose was to undertake scientific activity, as well as to disseminate knowledge and education to the general public by publishing scientific texts. In 1767 the association received approval of its statutes, and was allowed to call itself Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab [The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters]. Gunnerus was always the driving force behind this society, and he hoped that the work would lead to the establishment of a separate university in Norway. This goal was eventually achieved, but not in his life time.

Recommended reading: Johan Ernst Gunnerus: 1718 - 26. februar -1918: mindeblade [Johan Ernst Gunnerus: 1718 – 26 February – 1918: Memorial writings]. DKNVS, 1918.

Author: Einar Rædergård